Okay, this column is being done live. We are standing on the stage of Constitution Hall looking down at about 400 kids and their parents and their friends, and most of them are going just a little bit crazy. They are graduating. June is dream time in America.
The girls are in the white gowns, the boys in red. Their faces are mostly earnest, totally happy. Behind me, the band is playing "Pomp and Circumstance." The graduates are coming down the aisle. The parents are cheering, sometimes clapping. Each face expresses pure joy. Flash bulbs pop. It is a wonderful scene.
I scan the faces, panning each row like a camera. The boys still look like boys, but the girls are a different story. Some of them are girls, but some are women. With all the kids, I try to get into their heads, to wonder what they are thinking about, how things might have changed since I was in high school--what their dreams may be.
Their guidance counselor says the dream has not changed. They think they will live as well as their parents did. The children of professionals want to be professionals themselves--physicians, lawyers, accountants. The children of blue-collar workers want to be professionals also. In America when you are young there is only one direction, and that is up.
But some are not going up. There is a story in the morning paper and I think about it as the music plays and I pan the faces. Some kids are not going to college this year. Maybe never. There is a crunch. The kids have no money and the government has cut back on loans and grants and the colleges themselves are in trouble.
My own college calls me like a bill collector. It wants to know what I can give and when I can give it. It writes me heartbreaking letters telling of unimaginable tuition costs and the drop in minority enrollment. The scholarship fund is hitting bottom and costs are going up and, please, Mr. Cohen, can you give?
In Washington, fewer kids are going off to college this year. In one high school the number is down by 10 percent. In the schools in the very poorest of the black areas, the figures are infinitesimal. They were never big, but this year they are smaller than ever.
On a television show a while back, John Lofton, a conservative columnist, said that one of the things wrong with this country was that too many kids were going to college. I doubt it. In fact, one of the things wrong with this country is that too few kids can now afford college. The government, which made it possible for me to go to college and to graduate school, is cutting back across the board. It is throwing away the future.
The Reagan administration has cut back the student loan program, tightened eligibility requirements and made the loans themselves more expensive by raising the interest rates. Some of this is justified since some students were clearly taking advantage of the program--borrowing cheaply from the government, for instance, rather than using savings that were earning a high rate of interest. No taxpayer should be asked to support that--or loans that are really used to buy cars.
But the overall effect of the administration's program is to make it harder for young people to go to college--and much harder to go to graduate school. Both the rich and the poor are being penalized. The money saved on the loan program, for example, is not being pumped into grant programs for poor kids--nor is it being given to the colleges themselves for disbursement. In some cases, students who are better off will have to suffer some or trim their plans to suit their finances. Poor kids can just give up on college altogether.
It's easy not to read newspaper stories about this, but here in the hall with the music and the parents and the graduates, it takes on a meaning it does not have in print. You have to wonder what it must feel like to count on college, to think about college, to know that college can bust you out of poverty or keep you from slipping back, and then be told that there will be no college.
So here I am looking down at the kids. The graduates are in their seats, the music has swelled, the ceremony is about to begin and everyone is brimming with happiness. June is dream time across America, but for some, the dream has already ended.